Sunday, October 21, 2012

Raw Sewage: "William S. Burroughs: Commissioner of Sewers" (1991)



This bizarre video documentary from the 1980's threatens to be even more weird than the author.

Clocking in at under an hour, the film jumps back and forth between a black and white videotaped interview between Jurgen Ploog and Burroughs, and Burroughs at a reading, with some of his artwork projected behind him (and an overenthusiastic crowd projecting whoops and laughter in front of him).

The most surprising aspect of the film is Ploog's interview with Burroughs. Ploog sidesteps the mundane questions I am sure Burroughs was asked a million times before (did you know the Beat movement would become a phenomenon? what was Jack Kerouac really like?), and focuses on the process of writing. It's like "Inside the Actors' Studio," for academics.

Burroughs' readings are also entertaining. Among his revised ten commandments: don't blow pot smoke in your pet's face, and don't be such a shit you don't know you are one. It is interesting to see the writer refer to words as organisms in the interviews, to push the film medium as the ultimate meeting of words, music, and visual stimulation, and this opens up a few art films Burroughs either wrote or starred in.

Burroughs is a difficult man to read and listen to, strictly because he sometimes tries to take his audience/reader further than they can comprehend. I am currently reading his first book, a definitive version of "Junky," which he did not start writing until he was 35, my age now. His advice to writers was taken from Sinclair Lewis- if you think what you have written is great, throw it out. A writer is the worst judge of his own work.

The title of the film comes from a piece he wrote when given the question "when did you stop wanting to be President of the United States?" He wrote that he would rather be the commissioner of sewers for St. Louis. No political speeches, just a paying job with the power to run raw sewage through the lawns of enemies and the lazy. Sounds good to me.

William S. Burroughs sometimes reads like a very angry man. His readings make him seem more wise about the world than the rest of us. He travelled, took harsh amounts of illegal narcotics, came out as a homosexual, and shot his wife in the head during a drunken William Tell challenge, killing her. He sums up our existence with "life is a cut up." Take a magazine page, cut it up, put the pieces back together in a different order or arrangement, and read the text. It does sometimes make more sense than what the article writer meant (I have tried this with entertainment magazines, and it is a hoot).

"William S. Burroughs: Commissioner of Sewers" is a strange work that does add to the writer's mystique. This is not a straight documentary, it did lose me once in a while, and I thought an hour was too little time to try and get to know this man.

It is unbelievable that Burroughs lived into his 80's despite the life he led, and the things he did to his body. That kind of experience would be hard to find today in a John Grisham or Danielle Steel. But who cares? As Burroughs put it- "an old faggot once told me 'some people are shits, darling.'" I wonder if someone could needlepoint that on a sampler for me... (* * * *) out of five stars. Get this movie now!: William S. Burroughs - Commissioner of Sewers